Joe Caruso, just as everyone else associated with the beginnings of the Trenton Thunder, remembers April 27, 1994.
And not so fondly.
That was the night the Thunder was supposed to play its first-ever home game at beautiful brand-new Waterfront Park, a $17 million facility in New Jersey’s capital city with a great view of the Delaware River.
In the visitor’s dugout that night was the Albany Yankees and a 21-year-old shortstop named Derek Jeter. The game wasn’t played.
Trenton’s field wasn’t ready, wasn’t safe, and Yankees manager Bill Evers refused to allow his team to play on it. The back page headline on one of the two daily newspapers that covered the team blared “Field of Seams’’. Fond memories indeed.
This year the Thunder begins its 27th season in Trenton as the AA affiliate of those same Yankees. Caruso, and his long-time partners as Thunder owners Joe Finley and Joe Plumeri, can laugh now about what happened in 1994. When you’ve entertained your 10 millionth fan, as the Thunder did in 2019, it’s easy to smile—which is what Caruso wants all those fans to do as well.
“To think we hit 10 million fans last year that was never on our radar screen in 1994,’’ Caruso said. “That first year was a challenge. We weren’t even thinking about where we would be in 20 years, we were thinking we better make sure we make it through the first year.’’
They more than made it. The Thunder has become as much as part of Trenton as a pork roll sandwich, which of course you can get at the game, the Battle Monument or the Old Barracks.
Where other minor league sports franchises have tried, the Thunder has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
“When we first started everyone said, ‘Baseball will never work in Trenton,’ etc., etc.,’’ Caruso said.
But, as Caruso is quick to point out, the Thunder is more than a Double-A baseball game, much more.
“We’re an entertainment experience with a baseball game going on, but not everyone comes for a baseball game,’’ Caruso said. “It’s a social gathering. It’s team-building for office managers. It’s also a diverse food, beverage and dessert experience. People come out, have a good time and walk away smiling at something. We create smiles.’’
Pessimists who didn’t think minor league baseball would survive in Trenton pointed out the fact it was an easy drive to Philadelphia to see the Phillies and the Yankees weren’t that far away, either. Why go see AA ball when the big leaguers were so close?
“We had a different view,’’ Caruso said. “We did our due diligence and ran around to different stadiums and saw what they were doing.’’
What they saw and what they did was give the fans more than a baseball game. They got the fans involved with on-field activities, giveaways, and different themes almost every night. The competition wasn’t the Phillies nor the Yankees, but a night out for dinner and a movie.
“People who come for the first time are pretty wowed,’’ Caruso said. “The field is beautiful. The stadium is beautiful. We have a pretty high wow factor. And we always try to make it better.’’
That task falls on the team’s front office led by general manager Jeff Hurley, who begins his 17th year with the Thunder and fifth as the GM. In 2018 he was named Minor League Baseball’s General Manager of the Year.
“Big part of our offseason, people ask, ‘What do we do during the offseason?’ A big part of it is spent putting together our promotional calendar and in-game entertainment,’’ Hurley said “We do have to keep our show fresh. There are fans who come once or twice a year, but there are also fans who come to 30-40 games a year. We don’t want them seeing the same things over and over.’’
Some of what is on tap for the 2020 season are weekly promotions, or some weeks, even more: fireworks night, Dollar Dogs ($1 hot dogs), Thirsty Thursday ($2 beers) and the Fan-Cam, which debuted during the 2019 season.
Also in 2020 will be more bobblehead nights–—and to show the entertainment/baseball balance there will be an Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres bobblehead to honor the two Yankee stars and three bobblehead nights with Marvel Superhero characters.
In April actor Leslie David Baker (Stanley from The Office) will be on hand for a game. And in June the team will have a Top Gun Series in reference to the opening of the movie Top Gun 2.
“When you purchase a Thunder ticket you know you’re getting good value.’’
If you’re competing with “dinner and movie’’ you better make sure you have good food and a diverse menu. The Thunder saw to that.
“We’re followed by these food bloggers who love what we do,’’ Caruso said. “And we have healthy alternatives food choices too. We have Horizon (healthcare services) involved to provide a healthy menu.’’
But there is also your classic ballpark food and some with a twist you have never seen. One of the team’s sponsors is the aforementioned Case Pork Roll, another Trenton institution. Friday nights the team switches uniforms to become the Trenton Pork Roll.
And available at the Case stand on the first-base side is a sandwich called the “Sticky Pig’’ which consists of a thick slice of Case Pork Roll, egg and cheese, with bacon and red pepper jam on a glazed doughnut. It’s only a rumor the team is looking for a local cardiologist to sponsor the sandwich.
“Those sell like crazy,’’ Hurley said. “People love them.’’
People, especially people out at a ballgame, like beer. And the Thunder has 62 taps throughout the ballpark. Everything from your traditional lagers to an assortment of local and national craft beers as diverse as any stadium anywhere.
New in 2020, thanks to Hurley and his staff, is White Claw Thunder Dugout seats. For $45, a customer gets a front-row seat atop the Thunder dugout, a two-hour “all you can eat’’ session at the food stands, waiter/waitress service during the game, and if he/she is over 21, one White Claw.
“We just introduced that [in February] and the response has been great,’’ Hurley said.
Last summer the Thunder won their fourth Eastern League title following the championship teams of 2007, 2008 and 2013.
What started as the Detroit Tigers affiliate and then became the Boston Red Sox before the Yankees took over in 2003, the Thunder has made the postseason 20 times over those 26 years.
“The Yankees have a great farm system and we’ve been fortunate to be a part of that with some really good teams,’’ Hurley said.
On the current Yankees team, which is the favorite to win the American League, are nine players who played for the Thunder—Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, and Jonathan Loaisiga.
“We don’t want to downplay the baseball, because we are a baseball team,’’ Hurley said. “We want to entertain our fans. We want them to leave remembering not just the game, but the great time they had.’’
And they remember the players when they turn on their TVs and see them playing in the Major Leagues.
From those three Thunder organizations, 376 players and coaches have gone onto the Majors. And so have two announcers Tom McCarthy, the Phillies play-by-play man and Andy Freed, the Tampa Bay Rays play-by-play man.
“It’s a perfect place to launch a career,’’ Caruso said.
The Thunder doesn’t just draw from the city of Trenton or the county of Mercer, but as far as Cherry Hill in South Jersey; Somerset in Northern Central Jersey and across the Delaware in Bucks County and Northeast Philadelphia.
“Our market area in New Jersey and Philadelphia has choices. They can go to the beach, they can go to the Poconos. They can go to AC. We needed to be an entertainment destination,’’ Caruso said.
They have also become ingrained in the area. The latest endeavor is having the players go out to area schools and speak out against bullying.
“The thing we like doing is giving back,’’ Caruso said. “We’ve had our foundation, the Grand Slam Foundation for 25 years. Our ownership group has given $7.5 million back into the community.
“This year we’ve partnered with NJEA and others for an anti-bullying campaign. We have players visiting schools to say this bullying isn’t cool.’’
What is cool is how the Thunder, from a crazy night in 1994 where a game wasn’t played, has captured so many fans.
“They come for different reasons, but they all come for the same fundamental reason of just something simple, not complicated, simple,’’ Caruso said. “It’s about America, it’s about fun, and it’s about good feeling and family.’’